In a spectacular move President Obama fired General Stanley McChrystal after the Rolling Stone magazine broke a story reporting his staff’s and his own disrespectful remarks about the president and his national security team.
The incident is not only meat for the tireless hosts of cable news shows; it also represents another chapter in the sometimes complicated relationship between the commander-in-chief and his generals. So it’s not coincidental that many commentators have drawn comparisons between Obama and Truman who, without further ado, replaced General Douglas McArthur after the latter had criticised his Korea policy.
McChrystal, of course, had nothing similar in mind, but like McArthur he had become a celebrity-like figure in Washington who overestimated his political role. McChrystal frequently travelled with journalists and used the media to boost his own image as a tireless ascetic military commander, who needs no more than four hours sleep a night and eats only one meal a day. It’s not the first time that McChrystal has got into political trouble. When he leaked a confidential analysis, a one-on-one with the president saved his job. But by allowing his staff to joke about Biden and security advisor Jones (‘a clown’), he has exceeded his credit. McChrystal granted the Rolling Stone exclusive access and he never denied the quotes that appeared in the piece.
After months of bad news from the Hindu-Kush (a rising death toll, a postponed military offensive in the country’s second biggest city Kandahar, etc.) the replacement of McChrystal comes at a bad moment for the president. And Obama’s decision is not without risk because it will unavoidably be seen as another setback for his Afghanistan strategy. To make things even more complicated, McChrystal was maybe the only US official in Kabul who enjoyed the confidence of Hamid Karzai and was widely respected among alliance partners.
With a defense budget higher than those of all countries of the world combined and military installations or production sites of defense contractors in almost every congressional district, what president Dwight Eisenhower, a former general himself, once called the ‘military-industrial-complex’ is today more powerful than ever. The army is the institution US citizens value the most. Americans are proud of their soldiers, and top generals are widely considered to be trustworthy non-partisan voices in a more and more polarised political environment. But the scandal depicts the mightiest army of the world in a bad light.
It is somehow ironic that the Bush administration’s disregard of military counsel contributed much to the current situation: When former defense secretary Rumsfeld ordered the US army to invade Iraq, he ignored the troop estimates of the joint chiefs of staff, sending only a small contingent. As a consequence of the disastrous conduct of the war, a ‘give the army everything they need to get the job done’ attitude has become widespread in Washington; and Obama himself promised to listen to his generals and deliver. This puts the generals in an extremely strong political position, making the McChrystal case even more sensitive. It also fits in the picture that there is now talk about Obama’s aides being concerned that Obama’s choice to replace McChrystal, General Petraeus, could someday himself run for president. But until then he has a new job to do. The outcome will determine not only his own, but also strongly influence the fate of his president.
It seems that after the sacking of ISAF commanders McNeil and McKiernan, the replacement of McChrystal marks the end of the reign of the ‘Big Macs’ in Afghanistan. But if General McChrystal enjoyed celebrity status, General Petraeus must be considered the ultimate rock star of the US army. No doubt, appointing the most prestigious American soldier, who successfully managed the Iraqsurge and authored America’s new counter-insurgency-strategy (COIN), as McChrystal’s successor is a smart move. But all the stardust cannot overshadow the fact that things are not going well in Afghanistan. So far the surge did not produce similar results to the one instigated in Iraq in 2007. When McChrystal took over the command of ISAF his initial report was blunt: ‘Patience is understandably short, both in Afghanistan and in our own countries’. It remains to be seen whether there will be any patience left for General Petraeus.